(YouTube) I caught DESIRE AND HELL AT SUNSET MOTEL (1991) as part of a triple Sherilyn Fenn feature during the recent David Lynch complete retrospective. While it conflicted with the last Swanberg Secret Screening at the Davis, I couldn’t resist — there’s only one print, and no one apart from the organizer of this retrospective will probably care enough about the film to jump through the hoops to screen it again. There are plenty of LaserDisc and VHS copies available via eBay (and a copy on YouTube if you look for it) but, apart from the home market, it went mostly unseen, and will probably continue to do so.
That’s a goddamn shame, because this is a wildly fun bit of throwback color noir, perfectly framed with beautiful blues all around that makes it ideal for the big screen, and it makes the most of Sherilyn Fenn’s abilities.
To summarize: husband and ‘small toy seller’ Chester (Whip Hubley) travels out for a company conference to California with his wife Bridey (Sherilyn Fenn), and stay at the Sunset Motel, managed by a leering voyeur (the always delightful Paul Bartel). Chester suspects that Bridey is cheating on him, so he hires someone known as Deadpan (CUBE’s David Hewlett) to shadow her while there. Meanwhile, Bridey has finagled a dude she’s lead along known as Auggie (David Johansen/Buster Poindexter) to meet her there to kill Chester with his own gun. Matters escalate, then completely fragment as Bridey’s memory starts to falter.
The story barely holds together and the dialogue is overly colorful in a way that almost feels like a parody of hard-boiled patois, but despite all that, it is a thrilling ride that leans into its frenzied plotting. However, it mostly succeeds because Fenn was born for these sort of retro-noir films, exuding danger and seduction not just with her stark hair and beauty mark, but her demeanor and poise; Ava Gardner reborn.
(HBO MAX) This is the real fucking deal, a vodka-fueled tonic for the litany of sad, isolated wine-women thrillers. It’s a Hitchcockian/De Palma-esque thriller that gives every woman agency and nuance and, while it’s nowhere near subtle, it is far more substantial than you’d think for a story about a woman who drinks far too much and sleeps in too many beds and wakes up to find her fling viciously murdered next to her.
To quote Brian Grubb, “it’s a goddamn blast,” and it wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for lead/executive producer Kaley Cuoco (BIG BANG THEORY) who read this book by a dude and saw her vision for it, and made it happen.
What could have been a lazy riff on the self-absorption of modern true crime podcasts became something far more interesting, bolstered by some of the best performances by Steve Martin and Martin Short in years. Also, as someone who constantly extolls the use of silence in visual works, I was gobsmacked by the seventh ep of season one, ‘The Boy from 6B’. Additionally, Selena Gomez is a triumph who constantly overshadows both Martins.
It’s a legitimately thrillingly suspenseful tale that, honestly? Didn’t need to be.
This was initially penned for a collection of fan essays meant to cover the entire COLUMBO series, but the collection was never realized.
Viveca Scott is not like other murderesses in Columbo. She’s not an actress. She’s not married, she’s not a scorned lover, she’s not even insecure. She’s the head of Beauty Mark, a cosmetics company so popular that even our dear detective is familiar with her face.
Despite its popularity, Beauty Mark’s stock has been fading. Viveca (Vera Miles) needs a hit, as her gloating competitor David Lang (Vincent Price) reminds her. However, Viveca has an ace up her sleeve with the brilliant-but-boozy Dr. Murcheson, a chemist skilled enough to manufacture the cosmetics holy grail: a cream that eradicates the appearance of age, aptly named Miracle.
Sadly, Murcheson’s alcoholism is a roadblock in getting Miracle to market. In the nightmarish opening, we see his sweaty, porous face splashed with red light, looking the very sight of a mad doctor as he runs some final tests on a female subject. Murcheson’s assistant chemist, Karl Lessing (Martin Sheen), simply observes until Murcheson’s tremors nick the woman’s face. Karl takes over, leaving Murcheson to find comfort in a whiskey bottle.
Murcheson evaluates the test results and tells Viveca that Miracle is a failure, the prior, very successful results a fluke, but she hears quite different news from her spy at Lang’s: mousy, loose-lipped assistant Shirley Blaine. Shirley informs Viveca that Lang just received the most ingenious cream and, in one of the more far-fetched Columbo scenes, Shirley applies the cream to a nearby maid’s face and her crow’s feet disappear!
It dawns on Viveca that Karl, Murcheson’s assistant, falsified Miracle’s latest tests and brought the cream to Lang. Instead of informing Murcheson or buying the cream from Shirley, Viveca opts to unsuccessfully bargain with Karl for Miracle’s formula. When he laughs at her escalating offers, Viveca does what few Columbo murderers do: in the heat of the moment she impetuously kills Karl, bludgeoning him with a nearby microscope. She takes Karl’s single jar of Miracle and leaves before his body cools.
Early the next morning, Columbo investigates the scene of the crime (showing more interest in finding salt for his hard-boiled egg than clues), then makes a beeline for Viveca, following her from Karl’s dartboard to Beauty Mark’s offices, then to Viveca’s ‘Fat Farm’, peppering her with questions the entire way. Upon inquiring about her history with Karl, she responds: “I like young men, Lieutenant, lots of them. And if that shocks your ancient masculine double standard, I’m sorry.” In retaliation, Viveca drags Columbo to a nude exercise group, leaving the Lieutenant flustered and eager to exit and question Murcheson.
With one irritant out of her way, Viveca goes to dispatch another. Shirley has realized that Viveca was behind Karl’s murder, and the poor girl (who just wants to be like Viveca) tries to leverage that knowledge for a Beauty Mark executive position. Instead of granting her wish, Viveca opts to murder again (another Columbo abnormality) by gifting her poisoned cigarettes. Shirley dies while smoking and driving, looking to the world as if she lost control of her car.
Unfortunately, Shirley’s death does little to prevent Columbo from piecing together the murder. He confronts Viveca and she’s taken away, an unceremonious end for a most unusual Columbo woman. Viveca was a wily, successful, independent, occasionally shortsighted woman, sadly all too capable of murder. She was an anomalous antagonist when compared to Columbo’s other killer women, co-dependents who murdered out of jealousy, revenge, or ‘easy’ money. Viveca Scott was a murderess the likes of which Columbo had never seen before, and would never see again.
(Netflix/VOD) I watch more horror films than the average filmgoer, and I read a fair number of thrillers and murder mysteries, but I’m rarely disturbed by them. Call it desensitization or practiced separation, but all too often I see it as an academic matter.
THE SINNER S1 fucked me up. It’s a nasty, heartbreaking story but, more than anything else, it’s an extraordinarily cruel tale of abuse, one that I can rarely verbally discuss without finding a bit of a hitch into my breath.
THE SINNER S1 is about a woman, Cora (Jessica Biel), who goes to the beach with her husband and toddler, who then kills a man kissing a woman in broad daylight, amongst a number of witnesses. Cora is arrested, confesses to the killing, and Detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman) gets assigned to the case and he becomes obsessed with deducing exactly why she killed this man.
The first season of the show is based on the 1999 novel of the same name, written by Petra Hammesfahr, widely considered Germany’s Patricia Highsmith. (I disagree with that comparison because, for better or for worse, there will never be another Patricia Highsmith.) While the show hews relatively closely to the book, it does drop some of the darker and stranger elements* while also modernizing the material, tweaking the locale, and changing one noteworthy song.
I won’t go into the hows or whys, but it cuts to the quick of trauma in a way that made me very uncomfortable, but can’t help but extoll. Once I finished the final episode, I immediately started rewatching it, not to see how the pieces added up, but to examine how they pieced Cora’s character together. It’s a surprisingly controlled effort from first-time show runner Derek Simonds, one to be applauded.
The following second and third seasons are completely separate cases and allegedly, apart from Detective Ambrose and his private life, have nothing to do with the first season or the novel. (I have not seen them, so I can’t say for sure.) A fourth season is in the works.
Yes, the book is quite a bit darker than the series. I read the novel a good year or so after watching it, so I’d forgotten what quite what the show excised, but it was probably for the best. For a list of differences, check out the following spoiler-filled article: https://www.indiewire.com/2017/09/the-sinner-book-differences-incest-murder-nazi-abortion-orgy-usa-network-1201878805/
(FLIX FLING/YouTube) Every film noir nerd has their own definition of what constitutes a ‘noir’ film, and I’m no different. To me, what makes a film ‘noir’ isn’t hard-boiled dialogue, severe chiaroscuro cinematography, or moral detective stories, but that the protagonists are considered deviants or ‘cultural misfits’ and the forward thrust of the noir then focuses on removing them from society. The appeal of noir, at least for me, is in the acknowledgement that there are a subsect of folks that will never mesh with mainstream culture, no matter how hard they try, and they’re almost always eradicated via conviction or death.
PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, while being an oddity in that it’s ‘spy noir’, embodies that through unruly women, flawed men, and a shit-ton of political chicanery. It’s all about the fringe elements of society, despite (or perhaps, exacerbated by) the fact that it’s framed by an FBI investigation.
It’s worth noting that PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET is getting a proper Criterion release in June!
(Criterion/HBO MAX/YouTube/VOD)? Hitchcock is arguably the progenitor of modern genre film, which I suppose is why no one thinks of him as a silent filmmaker, but he directed handfuls of silent films before his first sound film, BLACKMAIL, and THE LODGER is one of his most remarkable early achievements.
While THE LODGER lacks the sophisticated visual scene construction Hitchcock would become known for, it does feature a number of his other signature attributes: an infatuation with blondes, startling visual motifs (his focus on the lodger’s right hand, for instance) and sexual tension buoyed by a sense of danger. It also plays with color tinting, has an astounding use of graphic design, and the interstitials are uniquely gorgeous with their use of fonts and background visual elements.
As a mystery, THE LODGER is a bit lackluster, but Hitchcock’s command of cinematic language far makes up for it, and showcases how ahead of his time he was.
As usual, I’ve included a trailer below, but please don’t let it fool you: the restored BFI print that Criterion and HBO MAX have is thrillingly vibrant. There’s also a link to a YouTube copy of the film below and, while it’s more pristine than the trailer, it lacks the tinting of the restored print.
(Netflix) I CARE A LOT is an overstuffed marvel; part huckster film, part heist film, part crime thriller, part courtroom drama, but all confidently shouldered by Rosamund Pike. Pike is Marla Grayson, a woman who preys on the elderly via an elaborate scheme in which she pays off a doctor to state in court that the elderly person is unable to take care of themselves and require a legal ward, then they suggest Marla. Marla then scuttles them off to a nursing home, sells off all of their belongings, milks their bank account until the person dies, then look for the next mark.
She’s a monster, and Pike revels in it. Just that premise alone could have carried the film but, it turns out that Pike and professional and personal partner Fran (Eiza González) end up abducting the mother of a crime boss, played with relish by Dianne Wiest (HANNAH AND HER SISTERS) and Peter Dinklage. Matters escalate, then culminate to what feels like a very unsatisfying Hays code-ish ending, but you can’t argue that you don’t see it coming.
While I could talk about the performances all day, director J Blakeson (THE 5TH WAVE) and cinematographer Doug Emmett (SORRY TO BOTHER YOU) also spend a refreshing amount of time with color theming, riffing off of Pike’s blond hair and ice blue eyes, to the point where there’s a shot where the color swatches are practically painted on someone’s tremendous heels. It’s a welcome change in this age of dull-sheen films.
(hoopla/VOD) HOTEL ARTEMIS is about a hospital for criminals masquerading as a hotel. Sure, that may make you think about JOHN WICK. Doesn’t make me think about JOHN WICK, but I’ve only seen the first so far, and the design, style, and intent of HOTEL ARTEMIS seems completely different than JOHN WICK.
While it’s centered around a criminal-centric hospital, HOTEL ARTEMIS also takes place in the ‘not-too-distant future’ where folks are rioting about water allocation in LA and, well, really, the only way you can tell this is in the future is because all of the criminals have cool toys. The titular hotel is a gilded age throwback (inspired by LA’s Hotel Alexandria) featuring plenty of art deco flourishes and vintage wallpaper, resulting in an extremely attractive feat of production design, and again, the only way you can tell the hotel exists in the future is because of all of the cool toys The Nurse (Jodie Foster) has to help heal her patients.
I’d still recommend HOTEL ARTEMIS for the production design and all of its plot and character machinations, but they also wrangled a hell of a cast clearly loving their time at the hotel. Not only does the film have Foster adopting an awkward running gait (and donning surprisingly decent age makeup), Dave Bautista is the stern-but-kind-eyed orderly glue that holds the hotel — and the film — together, Sterling K. Brown is the sympathetic bank robber, Jeff Goldblum is a cheshire-grinning mobster, Sophia Boutella is the stylish assassin, and other surprises.
The ensemble, as well as the use of throwback needle drops, certainly gives off a whiff of Tarantino fetishism, but HOTEL ARTEMIS is more concerned with escalating tension, as opposed to luxuriating in its mood and dialogue.
The film doesn’t completely hold together — really, how many of the great heist films do? — and it ends on a whimper — how many of the great heist films don’t? — but the well-honed action, atmosphere, and charming performances made me forget those shortcomings.
“This is America. 85 percent of what I fix is bullet holes.”
(hoopla/Prime/tubi/VOD) This is one hell of a neo-noir thriller. In the wrong hands, this story of mother accidentally murdering a man could have been Lifetime movie, but director/writer Matthew Pope, along with lead Bethany Anne Lind, shape it into a wickedly ruthless tale, then punctuate it with a gut-punch of an ending.